Fearless | Martha Wainwright brings her optimistic new spirit to Milwaukee

Mike Muckian, Contributing writer

Singer/songwriter Martha Wainwright waxes domestic when asked what would constitute her perfect day.

“Fixing things or using your hands can make me very happy,” says Wainwright, 36, the youngest child of a ferociously musical – or perhaps just ferocious – family. “Maybe making some curtains, planting some seeds or baking bread. I guess being on the road all the time makes me miss these tasks and accomplishments.”

Wainwright’s answers reflect the relatively new sense of peace and stability that she and husband Brad Albetta, who produced her first recordings, have found since the 2009 birth of their son Arcangelo. Wainwright’s attitude today stands in marked contrast to a past filled with domestic discord and emotional neglect. A writer who dedicates her song “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” to her father is not projecting a harmonious family life.

“BMFA” was released as part of a five-song EP in 2005.

Wainwright’s father is American musician Loudon Wainwright III, and her mother is the late Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle. Out performer Rufus Wainwright is her brother. Growing up in a household of accomplished musicians was not an arpeggio of high notes, according to Wainwright, especially when it came to her relationship with her father.

“For most of my life Loudon talked to me in song, which was a bit of a shitty thing to do,” Wainwright told The Guardian newspaper in 2005, “especially as he makes himself come off as funny and charming while the rest of us seem like whining victims.”

Loudon’s unfortunate choice of songs about his daughter’s teen years further eroded the relationship. 

Wainwright spent her 14th year in New York with her father, who had long since left the family, and it was a year that proved difficult for both of them. She was touring with her father when he performed “I’d Rather Be Lonely,” a song about a man’s unsatisfactory relationship with a woman. She hadn’t realized the song was written about her until Loudon announced it from the stage, a move that to her crossed the line of decency. Loudon’s song “Hitting You,” written about a time when he hit his daughter, broadened the divide between them.

However, “BMFA” may have started a period of catharsis for Wainwright. Her subsequent albums were a little less sharp-tongued, but no less insightful about the songwriter and those who influenced her musical growth and talent. 

“I’m not exactly sure where the talent comes from, but I am certainly inspired by my folks as well as my brother,” she says. “A part of songwriting comes with being original, and I wanted to have something different in my music from that of my family’s music.”

Wainwright’s songs differ her brother’s, but both artists draw on their experiences growing up in the Wainwright-McGarrigle household. Despite feeling less favored than Rufus as a child, she says, the years have strengthened the relationship between the two siblings.

“In many ways, my brother is my mentor,” Wainwright says. “I certainly see his career as a model for the one I would like to have, and I respect and admire his work ethic as well as his confidence.”

She performs with him whenever possible, although their tours will just barely miss each other this spring. Martha performs in multiple regional venues March 21-25, while Rufus arrives for concerts April 11-14.

She and Rufus will perform together several times this summer and the siblings are planning an album of McGarrigle’s songs recorded live at various tribute concerts over the past few years. The opportunities to perform together have taken on a new meaning in recent years. 

“This is a tough business and we have to stick together to help each other out,” she says. “We perform more and more together since our mom died. I think we need each other more.”

Kate McGarrigle was diagnosed in 2006 with clear-cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that affects the connective tissues. She appeared at a concert with Rufus and Martha at London’s Royal Albert Hall six weeks before she died to raise money for the Kate McGarrigle Fund, domiciled at Canada’s McGill University Health Centre, to raise sarcoma awareness. She died at age 63 on Jan. 18, 2010, three months after Martha gave birth to Arcangelo.

McGarrigle’s final song “Proserpina” pays homage to the Roman goddess of springtime, with a refrain that calls the goddess home to her mother. Wainwright performed the song on her 2012 album, “Come Home to Mama,” a tribute to her mother.

McGarrigle’s passing was difficult for Wainwright, but she feels a new optimism both as a person and an artist. She continues to tour and look for ways to create happiness in her increasingly domestic life.

“Now that I have a son, any time with him is the best time I have,” she says. “I think playing with him in the sand and running on a lawn would make me very happy right now.”

Where’s Martha?

Fans willing to make the drive will have ample opportunity to catch Martha Wainwright over the next few days:

March 21 The Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis

March 22 Shank Hall, Milwaukee

March 23 High Noon Saloon, Madison

March 24 The City Winery, Chicago 

March 25 The Ark, Ann Arbor, Mich.

What about Rufus?

Rufus Wainwright will also visit the upper Midwest, just barely missing the chance to perform with his sister. Here’s where you’ll find him:

April 11 The Pabst Theater, Milwaukee

April 12–13 Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul

April 14 Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago